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Noir City comes to Denver

April 4, 2018

For the following post on Noir City Denver we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

What is film noir? 

Is it merely about conventional crime? Is it bad people doing bad things, blinded by their own obsessions? Is it a beautiful yet duplicitous woman driving lust-crazed men to destruction? Is it the illusion of the American Dream rudely juxtaposed with the simultaneous urge to disrobe this fatuously disingenuous fantasy? Noir gives you a front row seat to this slow burning chaos and shows you an America light years from its founding ideals, rife with corruption and darkness, and abounding with alienation, anxiety, moral ambiguity and disillusionment.

James Ellroy has a curt, concise and yet dynamic phrase to sum up all this dark distortion:  “You’re FUCKED!” The Demon Dog often explains it this way:  “You have just met a woman… You are coming in for the very first kiss, and what you know will be the veritable Mount Everest of sexual delight… BUT, it’s film noir, and the common term of transit in film noir is:  First kiss to your death in the gas chamber in the Green Room at San Quentin Prison—six and a half months! WHY?! Because it’s film noir, AND YOU’RE FUCKED!”

Film Noir Foundation Founder and President Eddie Muller, whom Ellroy has reverently dubbed the “Czar of Noir” defines this characteristically un-definable genre in a manner more accessible, but no less haunting:  “If a private eye is hired by an old geezer to prove his wife’s cheating on him and the shamus discovers long-buried family secrets and solves a couple of murders before returning to his lonely office – that’s detective fiction. If the same private eye gets seduced by the geezer’s wife, kills the old coot for her, gets double-crossed by his lover and ends up shot to death by his old partner from the police force – I can say with complete assurance: you are wallowing in NOIR.”

The Film Noir Foundation is a non-profit public benefit corporation established to preserve the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement.  The Foundation preserves films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, thus ensuring high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for future generations.  The centerpiece of the Foundation’s public awareness campaign is the annual Noir City film festival, established in 2003 in Muller’s native San Francisco.

Fifteen years after Noir City’s inception, Muller brought his venerable cinematic carnival to Denver for the very first time.  And there was no better locale in the Mile High City than “Ellroy’s House” (Muller’s name for the Alamo Drafthouse).

noir city denver 3 full

Despite Noir City being Muller’s creation, the event’s Denver stop could also have been called “Ellroyfest”: Dig a roomful of krazy kool kats playing dress up in old school fedoras, and a Pachuco-era Zoot Suit or two… Dig Helen Knode, and LAPD Museum Executive Director Glynn Martin—Ellroy’s co-author on the 2015 book LAPD 53—and there’s Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys

Say what?!

“Oh boy—old punk rockers connected with noir, where did it start?” the Boulder-bred Biafra mused.  “Well, the movies were cool obviously, and some of them had a certain sleaze and degenerate vibe that appealed.”

The Prowler (1951)

Noir City Denver’s first film, Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, offered an abundance of sleaze and degenerates.  “It’s a film we both think very highly of,” Muller began.  Ellroy agreed:  “It’s a crackerjack motion picture.  It’s about cops as voyeurs, and Van [Heflin] is the single, creepiest cop in film noir”.

After being frightened by a peeping Tom at her mansion in the suburbs, the beautiful Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) calls the police for help.  Responding officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) becomes infatuated with Susan, and the two engage in an affair. Susan soon terminates their relationship though, choosing to remain with her husband, John (Sherry Hall). However, Webb’s obsession with her continues to grow, until he ultimately kills John, marries Susan and buys a motel with the proceeds from John’s life insurance policy. After Susan reveals that she’s pregnant, the couple relocates to a deserted ghost town, because Webb fears the baby will be incriminating evidence that he killed the sterile John. Preparing to deliver the baby himself, Webb is forced to fetch a doctor, a move that precipitates Webb’s climactic demise.

“Noir helps us empathize with why this character is doing these things, why they are acting in a certain way” Muller told me in our post-film conversation. “In the case of The Prowler, Susan’s motivation was that she wanted a baby, and Webb had no business being a cop… he was much more of a used car salesman, only doing things for material short term gain.”

Working in conjunction with Ellroy, Muller’s Film Noir Foundation recently gave The Prowler a comprehensive digital restoration.

Ellroy

James Ellroy and Eddie Muller holding court at the Alamo Drafthouse

 The Lineup (1958)

The Lineup was originally a TV show from 1950-1953… It was good like a pitbull…  It was goooood like a motherfucker!  Women wore hats.  Men wore hats.  Women wore little white gloves… I miss those days,” Ellroy mused.

Muller fleshed out the Demon Dog’s nostalgic description, referencing Director Don Siegel’s exceptional camera work that deftly and historically captured many iconic San Francisco locations that no longer exist: “This is the San Francisco that I grew up in,” Muller said. “I was there, and I remember all that stuff.  This whole movie follows the two hitmen and drops the cops.”  Led by the pathological hitman Dancer (a superbly sinister Eli Wallach), the perps Muller mentioned systematically eliminate the unwitting carriers of planted heroin with the quietly hilarious exception of a little girl who used the Big H to powder her doll.

“This film also features the best car chase shot before [Peter Yates’ 1968 Steve McQueen romp] Bullitt,” Muller said, regarding the film’s frenetic finish that races across the entire city as the police investigators close in.

Wicked As They Come (1956)

“There are many sub-categories of film noir.  Wicked is ‘evil woman noir’,” Ellroy began.  “There are two decent novels in the noir canon:  Double Indemnity, and [Wicked’s source material] Portrait in Smoke.”  The 1956 film, directed by Ken Hughes stars Arlene Dahl as a beautiful and cunning poor girl from the slums named Katherine.  In moves reminiscent of Ellroy’s uber-manipulative Celeste from The Big Nowhere, Katherine uses and abuses men to get what she wants.  Near the end of the film, as Katharine’s misdeeds finally catch up to her, it is finally revealed that the source of Katharine’s evil is a brutal childhood assault (and supposed gang rape) by a group of thugs. Like Ellroy’s own childhood trauma, Katharine’s ordeal obsessively dictates and directs her life.

711 Ocean Drive (1950)

In 1950, the public was fascinated with national coverage of congressional hearings on organized crime. This fascination gave birth to yet another noir sub-genre, the expose film. “[Joseph M. Newman’s 711 Ocean Drive] revealed so much about the inner-workings of organized crime, it had to be filmed under police protection,” Muller said, shortly before the film.  Amid constant threats of sabotage, Columbia Pictures actually purchased insurance policies with Lloyd’s of London to prevent the kidnapping of stars Edmund O’Brien and Joanne Dru.   

Drive focuses on diligent and ingenious telephone repair-man Mal Granger. Granger fuses his love of horse racing and electronics when he expands the illegal racing wire of Gangster Vince Walters. After Walters is murdered, Granger assumes command of the operation, and soon finds himself the target of both an east coast gangster who wants Granger out of the way, and a lieutenant who’s after Granger for murder. In a rather ironic tribute to Granger’s genius and the power of electricity, the chase concludes at the top of the Hoover Dam (a major source of electricity), where Granger is shot, and plunges to his death.

The film’s final frames concern a public service announcement warning viewers that their participation in bookmaking operations are also an indirect participation in murder, not too different from PSAs linking drugs to terrorism (“if you buy drugs, YOU could be supporting terror”) in the early 2000s.

On a lighter note, I was pleased to see Ellroy’s litigious nemesis Albert Teitelbaum listed among the credits as the film’s fur supplier.  I thought about bringing it up to Ellroy, but chose to leave that mess on the court docket where it belongs.

I Walk Alone (1947)

“As head of the Film Noir Foundation, I can actually lean on studios like Paramount, and tell them what they have in their vault,” Muller began.  “Paramount has an edict that they will not print film anymore.  Thankfully, I impressed them enough with Noir City that Paramount made a digital print of [I Walk Alone].”  Eddie passed the microphone to Ellroy, who broke down the film’s cast with typical Ellrovian antics:  “This movie stars the holy troika Kirk Douglas—still alive at 101 years old—Burt Lancaster and LEZ-abeth Scott.

Byron Haskin’s I Walk Alone shows the transition of American crime, from shadowy rum-running bootleggers to ensconced corporate kingpins. The film opens on bootleggers Frankie Madison and Noll Turner, who make a pact dictating that if either was caught and imprisoned, the other would save half of any profits made for the captured partner to collect upon release. Madison becomes the unlucky one, and upon his release fourteen years later, finds Turner a successful club owner and unwilling to split the profits as previously agreed. Turner uses his club as a money laundering operation while also ordering murders and beatings to protect his empire. Madison eventually derails Turner’s operations and does indeed collect what’s owed to him, all while evoking a slow-simmering bitterness over his old friend’s betrayal.

He Walked by Night (1949)

The festival’s final film was Alfred Werker and the uncredited Anthony Mann’s He Walked By Night.  “This is a landmark film,” Muller declared.  Ellroy concurred:  “It’s an important motion picture in the hard boiled canon…It’s based on the Irwin “Machine Gun” Walker case… The film spices it up, sexifies it, and makes it goooooooooood!” Walker was a former Glendale, California police department employee and WWII vet who was responsible for an audacious L.A. crime spree of burglaries, robberies and shootouts from 1945-1946. A schizophrenia rap—and ironically, a failed suicide attempt—helped Walker “beat the green room,” as Ellroy put it, and live out his days until 2008.

In the film, Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar who listens in to radio police calls, allowing him to continually avoid the cops. After Morgan kills a police officer, Sergeants Brennan (Scott Brady) and Jones (James Cardwell) struggle to piece the case together. But when Jones is wounded in a shoot-out with Morgan, Brennan employs all facets of detective work, including forensics and informants, to find the elusive and clever criminal.

Jack Webb appears in the film as a forensics specialist who helps connect several crimes to one person. He Walked by Night, and its police technical adviser Marty Wynn, would later inspire Webb’s popular Dragnet radio and television shows—which in turn paved the way for the glut of contemporary crime shows (CSI, Law & Order, etc.) we see today. Webb would also go on to pen a 1958 book called The Badge that would later stun an eleven-year-old El Monte, California boy named Lee Earle Ellroy.

Knights of Noir with logo

Ellroy, Muller and your columnist Jason Carter

The Mystery of the Missing Crime Novelist

The final (and unexpected) act of this festival of shadows, darkness, mystery and intrigue happened when we exited the theater following the conclusion of He Walked By Night. You could call it The Mystery of the Missing Crime Novelist…  Eddie Muller was alone in the lobby and looking lost.  “Anybody seen James?” he asked. For the first time in this three day festival, the natural and abundant confidence of the Turner Classic Movies host had seemed to vanish. For the next 25 minutes, we made nervous chatter with him, while we all wondered what had become of the Demon Dog. After sitting through six films of deception and debauchery, we naturally had to entertain the possibility that Ellroy had been subdued by a shadowy attacker. If this was true, I personally hoped the Demon Dog’s lifetime commitment to physical fitness would pay off, allowing him to escape. Like a noir-esque eleventh-hour twist, Ellroy suddenly thundered through the front doors, startling all of us, “Sorry… I fell asleep in my car!”

As Ellroy and Eddie sauntered off into the darkness, Jello Biafra asked me which Ellroy novel he should start with. “Ellroy will tell you to read Perfidia first, because it’s the earliest-set book he’s written, and the chronological beginning to his life’s work… I often tell people to begin with either The Black Dahlia or his autobiography My Dark Places, but in your case, because of who you are, maybe you should start with his Underworld USA Trilogy”, I said.

“Why’s that?”

“It’s full of dead Kennedys.”

 

Jason Carter

 

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